Welcome Lord Stanley: Game 1
It’s finally here: the Stanley Cup Final. The Chicago Blackhawks will host the Boston Bruins Wednesday night at the United Center for the first Original Six match-up in the Final since 1979.
And, boy, is it a match-up for the ages! Both Chicago and Boston overcame third-period elimination game deficits and Game 7 overtime victories in this postseason. Tuukka Rask exploded into the NHL postseason, recording 2 shutouts and looking spectacular on more than one occasion for the Bruins. Chicago has allowed only 3 Power Play goals in the postseason, remaining atop that category after killing 29-for-29 in the first 8 games.
But the world is about to find out what happens when an immovable object meets an unstoppable force. Chicago’s offense has the ability to light up its opponent – speed benefits the Hawks. Boston’s defense is capable of shutting down the likes of Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin with ease. Let’s break down these teams piece by piece.
The Blackhawks have incredible depth this season, that allows them to be lethal at any time. A typical third-liner, Bryan Bickell has made headlines for the Hawks by scoring 8 goals in 17 games, tying him with Patrick Sharp. Bickell’s grit and physicality earned him a spot on Chicago’s top line alongside Jonathan Toews. Andrew Shaw, who usually skates with Bickell, has recorded 47 hits and really found his stride this season. He works hard and his play will be improved with some line juggling, that may result in Dave Bolland by his side.
Patrick Kane as scored 4 goals in his last two games. His most recent goal was a double-overtime, series-clinching hat trick that sent the LA Kings packing and allowed for Chicago to advance to the Stanley Cup Final – the first time a goal of that caliber has ever occurred in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Despite what the critics have said, Kane has made an impact for Chicago right from the start. He tallied 5 assists in the opening round against Minnesota and 4 points (2G, 2A) against Detroit before recording 4 goals and 1 assist against LA. His ability to set up a teammate for a goal-scoring opportunity can stun an opponent and is very important for Chicago to capitalize on.
Boston does not have as much offensive depth as Chicago, but the Bruins do have David Krejci and Brad Marchand, who have combined for 34 points (13G, 21A) in 16 games. Krejci is also a plus 14 on the ice, second only to Nathan Horton (plus 21).
And these guys feed off of a great defense, which contributed to the Bruins outscoring opponents 33 – 16 over the past 10 games, including 15 – 3 over the last 5. Offensive depth is important, but Boston has shown that just a few men can carry the load just fine.
Boston has one of the toughest blue lines in the game and certainly one of the biggest guys in the game, Zdeno Chara. The nearly 7-foot semi-truck is a great skater when he needs to be and takes away any open ice breakaways with his incredible reach. Expect him to be on the ice for whatever Blackhawks plays exceptionally well entering the blue line.
That could be Nick Leddy, one of the best defenseman for carrying the puck into the zone in recent months. Against Chara, it will be like skating directly toward a brick wall – perhaps like the old Pong defender when put on expert mode. Still, Leddy could be a solution to the tight blue line.
As for the other blue line, Quenneville shouldn’t be terribly worried. Johnny Oduya and Niklass Hjalmarsson boast a combined plus 19 rating on the ice, better than any other pairing in this series. Oduya’s physical, in-your-face style of play works beautifully with Hammer’s cool, patient and big-picture style of play. Both of the guys, as well as Brent Seabrook and Michal Rozsival are willing to take a hit to make a play. This is key: it requires patience and grit to avoid the panic of just getting out of the situation as quickly as possible.
Boston’s Johnny Boychuk has recorded 55 blocked shots in this postseason and was a key factor in shutting down the Pittsburgh Penguins in 4 games. He has the ability to take up space and remove lanes from the opponent all over the ice, but especially in front of Tuukka Rask, who has been exceptional for Boston.
Tuukka Rask has made a name for himself in the NHL this postseason, posting incredible numbers at the top of the league. On paper, he looks just as good as Corey Crawford in most categories. Of course, it helps that he has a phenomenal defense in front of him. Still, he has made some spectacular saves that make him a dangerous opponent.
Luckily for Chicago, this is the third “All-World” or “on-his-game” goaltender that the Hawks have faced this postseason. The Madhouse Gang is confident they have what it takes to shut them down.
And the confidence in their own goalie who is getting noticeably less recognition for this time of year than he should be. Through the regular season, he posted some of the highest numbers in the league on multiple occasions and has continued to do so in the postseason. Right now, he is either better or “right there” with Rask. Take a look at the numbers.
Corey Crawford: 12 – 5 record (17 games); 1 shutout; 1.74 GAA (Leads postseason goaltenders); .935 Save Percentage
Tuukka Rask: 12 – 4 record (16 games); 2 shutouts; 1.75 GAA; .943 Save Percentage
Crawford knows in his sophomore season that he needs to be better, and he has been ever since he let in a soft goal against Detroit just a few weeks ago. Since then, Crawford has allowed two or fewer goals in 7 of his last 9 starts.
Rask boasted 0.44 goals against on average for the entire series against the Pittsburgh Penguins, which Boston swept with ease. In that series, Rask posted two shutouts and a .985 save percentage, allowing his team to outscore Pittsburgh’s offensive firepower by a margin of 12 – 2.
Chicago is healthy, but has scratched forward Viktor Stalberg for Wednesday night’s game. Boston’s Gregory Campbell is out for the remainder of the postseason with a broken right fibula he sustained after blocking a shot in the Conference Finals.
Game time is at 7 p.m. CT and can be found on NBC.